When Spratt came to there was no telling how long he’d been unconscious. Terror overcame him for a moment upon the realization he was wrapped tightly in Nedra’s cloak and being carried like a sack of potatoes. Spratt couldn’t be certain, but the feeling of weightlessness led him to believe Nedra had made her way to the rooftops of Garvin, where she was leaping from one building to the next.
For all the physical exertion, and being trapped under her armpit, she actually smelled quite pleasant. Like a garden of jasmine. As the sweet aroma filled his olfactory nerves, the terror within was slowly replaced with contentment.
The final moments that led to his current predicament flashed across his mind. The miraculous speed and energy he showed during the fight with Nedra was hard to ignore. He had no inkling of why it happened and if he could do it again. It was insane, but he’d stood toe-to-toe with a monster in hand-to-hand combat for a few moments, and then lost it just as quickly as it manifested. He wondered why. His muscles tensed as he contemplated how to tap those powers again. Then the warm scent of jasmine rushed through him and he completely relaxed.
Nedra ran and leapt for at least another half hour. Finally, they came to a halt. Although no light penetrated the caped cocoon, and there was the prevalent smell of jasmine, Spratt got a whiff of the unmistakable aromas of the sea. Those scents brought him back many years to the annual family vacations at Mauro Pier on the Jersey Shore. Each July, like clockwork, for the first sixteen years of his life, the entire Spratt brood took over a small portion of the bustling boardwalk in Wildwood. Seven days of fun in the sun with family; something he had looked forward to all year. Those were good times indeed.
The family cohesiveness lost importance upon having the independence of his first car. During the summer of his seventeenth birthday, Spratt drove down with a bunch of friends and stayed at a beach house. He met up with the family at times, but the majority of the time was spent at that house among buddies. On his own, it was all about picking up girls, drag racing, and raising as much hell as possible. And did they ever raise hell!
It was a kick in the pants by his grandfather, about eight months before his death, which set Spratt’s life on a better path. Prior to one of their drag racing sessions, Spratt got stopped by a police officer. Spratt showed the officer little respect and was probably close to being arrested. His grandfather happened to be on his evening walk and chanced upon the scene. He interceded and talked the cop into letting Spratt off with a warning. The “get out of jail free” card didn’t come without strings. His grandfather brought him into a diner and sat down with him and gave the speech of his life. He didn’t yell or even raise his voice, but being called a bum by your hero was eye opening.
That wasn’t the end of his lazy shore rat days all at once, but Spratt now relegated his carousing to occasional weekends. Working at a toy store as a stock boy didn’t seem like a long term plan for achieving success in the world. A decent job now appeared the sensible thing to do, especially when he looked at all of his buddies. None of them had gotten killed or anything that grim, but they were going downhill. A few had gotten in serious wrecks while racing, another had been in rehab a half-dozen times, and his closest friend was married at nineteen and divorced at twenty-one. With so much futility in close proximity, it wasn’t hard to put serious thoughts into the future.
Spratt worked hard over the next several years. He was intent on finding the right profession, one where he would make an actual contribution to society. None of Spratt’s jobs were great, but he finally found his place with the Army. Being trapped in a strange dimension didn’t create internal havoc for him. Instead of helping out Earth, he was in Taru making a difference. Coming soon, with what he’d done in that alley, he could go far beyond everything he’d done before or hoped was possible. Greatness was on tap. Spratt believed his cup was about to runneth over.
Then, just like that, Spratt’s focus shifted from his current predicament. It didn’t seem all that important any longer. Instead, he lay contently rolled within Nedra’s cape. Rectifying what ailed him shifted to the distant recesses of his mind. Spratt decided that once the reminiscing about his misbegotten youth at the shore was through, he’d figure out the newfound power he’d exhibited. After that, he’d surely be able to take down Nedra and find Winter and Biggs. For now, though, he just loved that warm smell of jasmine.
* * *
Kafira had walked sullenly from Keb’s home for the meet with Sullivan. She stayed ahead of Winter and Biggs and refused to engage in small talk. Instead of a musty warehouse on a rundown wharf, their current locale proved the diametric opposite of the last. This was a bustling upscale avenue with tree lined sidewalks and a cobblestone street. The ground was immaculately clean and the only vehicles were drawn by humans. The shops along the way sold clothing, foods, and even perfumes. Kafira was not accosted in any way, but the looks of disdain for her were not hidden either. It was evident racism was a problem even in Taru.
They finally stopped at the front of what appeared to be a restaurant. Two men holding wicked staves barred entry. The men eventually parted when Kafira produced a golden medallion about four inches in diameter with indecipherable writing running around the circumference.
Once through the beaded curtain the dim interior was illuminated by candle. They were led to the back of the restaurant to a table that was not within earshot of any other. In a few moments, Kafira sat opposite Sullivan at a posh table with a five-course meal spread across the surface. Their host didn’t offer as much as a glass of water to anyone. Two guards flanked him on each side. They looked like royal guards standing over their king. At least half-a-dozen more men were standing near each place of egress. All of these individuals were armed with edged weapons, and had their eyes glued to every move made by Kafira, Winter, and Biggs. No other guests in the restaurant mattered as long as Sullivan was holding court to people whose allegiances were considered an unknown.
There was a brief exchange lacking all pleasantries. Kafira then simply passed the small medallion to Sullivan.
After a quick survey of the piece, Sullivan spoke. “You’ll find Nedra on The Lycoris.” Sullivan ran his finger over the raised lettering. “You’d best hurry; she’s due to depart at the top of the hour.”
Kafira growled. “Do you think it would have been fairer to schedule our meeting earlier in the day?” Kafira was already standing up. She motioned for Biggs and Winter to get up too. “You knew there was almost no chance of us catching that ship.” Kafira looked over her shoulder at Sullivan as she walked towards the exit.
“I don’t give information on my customers easily. I provided the service your trinket paid for, but you should have known I would give Nedra a very good chance of leaving the city.” Sullivan shook a scolding finger back and forth. “If you want Nedra so badly, you’ll find a way to catch them.”
Kafira hissed. “The Lycoris is the fastest boat to sail the Sea of Timin.”
“What can I say, figure something out.”
“One day you will get your just reward,” spat Kafira.
“It won’t be too soon, my dear.” Sullivan completely ignored his guests and gazed down at his new acquisition. He pawed at the medallion as he rolled it from hand to hand. “Plus, I have something very precious to you. With that comes power. The only true commodity I deal in.” Sullivan waved. “So long, kitty cat.” He threw the disc to a crony and continued gorging on dinner
Once outside, Kafira broke into a run. Winter and Biggs tried to keep up.
Winter yelled to Kafira, “You mind letting us know what’s going on?”
Kafira kept running. “If I stop, there is no chance! Do your best to keep up!”
Biggs and Winter were falling further behind Kafira. She was an amazing physical specimen. She was running nearly twice as fast as them, and she was actually gaining speed, where as they were running slower and slower.
After ten minutes of full-out running, Kafira came to a ten-foot high rusty metal gate closing off entry to a long wooden dock. Kafira slowed ever so slightly, crouched a bit, then leapt atop the fence with one graceful motion. A moment later she dropped down nimbly and was almost instantly running at full speed. By the time Winter and Biggs reached the gate, Kafira was turning the corner at the far end of the dock.
Winter was about to scream to Kafira, but figured it was a wasted effort. Instead, she produced her sword and chopped the intricate metallic locking device in half. She threw the bits that remained on the ground and shoved the heavy gates open far enough to squeeze through. “No way was either of us pulling off Kafira’s stunt.”
Biggs had tried to keep up with Winter, but he didn’t catch up until Winter was already through the gate. Talk about lagging behind the lagger!
Surprisingly, it took only a short sprint for Biggs and Winter to catch up with Kafira who sat sullenly on the edge of the dock looking out amid the swarm of ships in the harbor. Their guide didn’t seem fazed by the recent exertion. In fact, she wasn’t even breathing hard. On the other hand, Biggs doubled-over with hands on knees and promptly vomited. Winter tried to stand tall, but grasped her hips and sucked in rasping gulps of air.
“Which is the Lycoris?” asked Winter.
Kafira stared at the endless horizon of ships for a moment before answering. “How would I know? It does irritate me that we did not miss it by more than ten minutes,” said Kafira as she dropped her head in shame. “I’ve failed you again.”
“There’s got to be some way to find that ship,” said Winter. She felt like she’d caught her second wind and wanted to continue the pursuit immediately. The trail was still warm, but she knew it wouldn’t be for long.
“If only we knew their destination! I doubt the ship’s captain filed a travel plan.”
Biggs wiped a gooey string of vomit from his chin then straightened out his near limp body with the help of his sword as a makeshift cane. “What if we turn this place upside down and split a few heads?”
Kafira smiled. She seemed impressed by Biggs’ improving fortitude. “These seafarers are hard men, so head-splitting will not be easy, though it couldn’t hurt to make inquiries. We just may find someone willing to talk.”
Not wanting to ask questions to a large group, the three looked around for a sailor working on his own. The area was bursting with activity. Kafira took a very visible double take when she caught sight of a figure rolling up a long, heavy spool of mooring rope.
Winter too took a double take of sorts when she realized the sailor they approached was another Robandy. The similarity in form and body structure was impossible to miss. The other’s frame was clearly masculine as it was wider, brawnier in build; also, a whole lot uglier. While Kafira’s fur was smooth and her face free of scars, this sailor had a mottled coat and a large scar ran from the tip of his nose across the right eye. There was still the semblance of an eyeball in the ruined socket, but it was a cloudy white, unmoving mass. The ultra-alert left eye did seem to make up for any handicap.
The sailor’s working yellow orb tracked from Winter to Biggs and finally set on Kafira. He licked his lips with a darting pink tongue before speaking. “So good to see you.”
“I cannot say the same, Rothrock,” spat Kafira.
“I should not even be speaking with you! I have no wish to become a pariah with our own people.”
“The saddest part of my plight is that uncivilized buffoons with no love for the Robandy like you, Rothrock, have a better standing than I.”
“Our people do have strange customs and honorariums.” Rothrock shrugged nonchalantly. “It doesn’t help to fight the old ways. They will never change.”
Biggs interjected, “I hate to interrupt this feline reunion, but I have no clue what either of you’re talking about.”
Rothrock raised the eyebrow above his good eye at Biggs before looking back to Kafira. “I see you have not told your friends of the immense shame weighing upon you.” Rothrock shook his head from side to side and made an irritating tsk-ing noise. “It’s not right to put such nice looking people in danger. Who knows what could become of them for consorting with you!”
“They will not only be fine, they will flourish in my care. Right now, I need to help one of their friends taken by Nedra to the Lycoris.”
“Anyone on the Lycoris, their days of freedom are through. You know that as well as I.” Rothrock waved his hands from side to side. “I cannot tell you anything about Nedra. She’d take me next time.” Rothrock winked. “Wish I could help, but life is so very sacred to me.”
A burst of rage appeared in her eyes and, as she’d been known to do, Kafira sprang upon Rothrock. The pair rolled around for several minutes, slashing, clawing, and biting each other. Shrill screams and tufts of fur echoed through the area as they grappled.
Winter looked around the dock cautiously as the calamitous sounds attracted the attention of a number of workers. “Uh, we’re drawing a crowd,” intoned Winter.
Almost before Winter said the words, they were surrounded by nearly two dozen sailors. In a small bit of luck, the workers seemed more interested in watching the cat fight rather than tipping the scales of balance.
Winter grabbed Biggs by the wrist and looked deep into his eyes. “Don’t do anything until I do!” Biggs nodded in agreement. Winter pulled harder on Biggs’s wrist bringing him close enough to smell his lunch. “I mean it! Nothing!”
“Until you do,” Biggs winked and smiled pleasantly back at Winter.
After flailing around for several minutes, Kafira gained the upper hand by grabbing Rothrock’s ear and slammed the scarred Robandy’s head into the ground. The harsh glow behind Rothrock’s single yellow eye changed to fear.
“Nedra’s future anger will be nothing compared to my own! I have nothing left! So, you can tell me what I want to know now or…” Kafira drew back a hand and flicked her glistening claws.
There was only a momentary hesitation then a defeated Rothrock spoke. “The Lycoris is bound for the slave bazaars of Than. Nedra overthrew the czar recently and has taken all the profits for herself. She has a full complement of slaves locked in the ship’s bowels. Business appears good!”
“Dozens,” asked Kafira.
“More like hundreds. Nedra’s amping up her slave runs. From what I hear, she’s got something major planned.”
“To set herself for a life of leisure?” asked Kafira.
Rothrock shook his head. “I understand she is building an army.”
“For what purpose,” questioned Kafira.
“That I do not know. So, stop pressing.”
Kafira stood and looked down on Rothrock. “You are a pathetic cur!” She then drove a vicious kick into his abdomen.
The crowd of sailors and longshoremen closed in on the travelers. Kafira turned and saw that there were only a few feet separating them from the mob. With their backs against the pier’s edge, they had very little room to fend off an attack that would surely come.
Winter clenched her sword. She was about to give Biggs the signal to begin the almost impossible attack against the horde of men.
“Hold, if you value your lives. Fear my fighting prowess you may, but my companions are ten times my superior!”
One grimy sailor spat back at Kafira. “Lies! These two are nothing and you’re outnumbered.”
“You have never heard of The Biggs of Soul?” The group of men didn’t respond. They just listened. Kafira pointed towards Biggs. “He is the most powerful son of Governor Soul of the Delictados Islands. He could tear half of you asunder with but a wave of his hand.”
Accepting his cue like a fine Shakespearian actor, Biggs threw off his hood, spun around and faced the group of men in the best magical pose he could muster. The mass of men gasped and took several speedy steps backward.
“As if Biggs of Soul was not enough to destroy you all, Winter Krell has the most cunning fighting style ever witnessed in Taru. She has already figured a way to slay half of your force in the first twelve seconds of any conflagration.”
Winter threw her hood off and spun on the men. She raised a finger to her temple and closed her eyes as if she was imagining the strategy necessary to end the conflict in one fell swoop.
“As for me?” She looked down at the cowering Rothrock. “Well, you know what I can do. Whatever few of you survive their initial wave…” She pointed a thumb at Winter and Biggs. “Well, you get to deal with me.” Kafira shrugged. “We promise to take it easy on you, but I doubt if more than three of you will walk away with all limbs attached. Any of you that do survive will be in such discomfort for the rest of your days, and just to lend aid to a being none of you even like.”
There was a brief bit of murmuring and the crowd receded back to whatever tasks they had been performing before the disturbance.
Kafira looked down at Rothrock. “Get out of here!”
Rothrock struggled to his feet and sauntered off without a sound. He then looked over his shoulder once he was well out of range of Kafira. “Good luck in whatever you have planned. Somehow I doubt we’ll meet again.” Then he slinked off.
Biggs looked at Kafira with pride. “You really put one over on those guys, Kaf!”
Winter smiled. “I’ll say. Thanks for talking us up so well.”
“Perhaps I did not lie. The Robandy also know legend of the Triptych and the powers pent up within the three.” Kafira started to walk away.
Winter asked the question on Biggs’s mind. “What in hell does that mean?”
Kafira didn’t look back. “Come, we must settle affairs with Keb and hunt the Lycoris.” Biggs started to chime in with his own question on Kafira’s not-so-subtle view of the future, but she cut him off. “There will be time for discussion later.” In an effort to forestall any further conversation she added, “Much later!”
The three walked quietly back to Keb’s home. Winter and Biggs glanced at each other. They were both cataloging a litany of questions for Kafira.
* * *
Keb stood on the steps of his house, while Kafira, Winter, and Biggs were standing at the bottom.
“I am sorry things didn’t go better for you.” Keb lowered his head. “I am most disappointed Kafira has chosen to leave my home, although I cannot fault her. The danger your friend faces is much closer at hand than what she will endure outside of Garvin.”
Winter thought about the endless questions being raised about Kafira’s apparent knowledge of the future and her unknown troubles if she left the city. Each time Biggs and Winter attempted to get some answers they were rebuffed. Keb and Kafira were tightlipped people. Eventually answers had to come. She didn’t like living in a state of not knowing. It figured to be some type of cruel irony to exist “in the dark” whilst living in a world with twin suns. The true definition of irony had always eluded her in school, but she was pretty sure she’d nailed it this time.
Keb continued, “A friend has arranged fast transport to Than. They can’t help you beyond that. If the winds are with you, well then, you may arrive before Nedra sells Mr. Spratt into unending captivity. That’s the best I can offer.”
Kafira, in a rare show of affection hugged Keb tightly. “Thank you for everything. You truly helped make my life worth living again.”
Keb glowed as he looked down on Kafira. “Only because you saved mine.” He held her by the shoulders. “Be safe, my friend. I hope all of your troubles melt away.”
Kafira nodded then turned and walked away without another word. Winter smiled at Keb and followed.
Biggs shook Keb’s hand. “Will we ever understand what’s going on?”
“Oh, you will find out in due time. We can’t rush the future, though.” Keb smiled. “Can we?”
Biggs smiled back. “I guess we can’t.”